Every August the locals flee Rome due to the heat to holiday either at the sea or in the mountains, leaving the city deserted – Romans often say only “dogs and Americans” can be found in Rome during the month.
However, this year, the COVID-19 pandemic means not even American tourists can spotted in the Eternal City.
“These days are days of vacation: It can be a time to restore the body, but also the spirit through moments dedicated to prayer, to silence and to relaxing contact with the beauty of nature, God’s gift,” Pope Francis said on Sunday, at the end of the weekly Angelus prayer.
“This should not allow us to forget the problems there are due to COVID: Many families do not have work, have lost work, and have nothing to eat,” the pontiff continued. “Works of charity and drawing near to these families should also accompany our summer break.”
The pope’s right hand man for charity, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, took the pope’s advice to heart and used his vacation to take 11 homeless people from the streets of Rome to a beach not far from the Italian capital.
“We took two cars so that we can chat during the journey and headed to the beach,” Krajewski told Crux.
The official title of the cardinal is the Papal Almoner – responsible for giving out alms for the poor in Rome in the name of the pope. Since his appointment in 2013, he has reinvigorated the office with his energy, and he can often be seen giving meals to the homeless, and the Almoner’s office has also established showers, health clinics, and even barbers for the poorest of the city.
But he doesn’t only see to their material needs, he also arranges visits to the Vatican Museums, concerts, and parties, including his latest excursion to the seaside.
“We provide beach towels, blankets, swimwear and everything else you need for a day at the beach, so that they really get to go on vacation,” Krajewski said.
After spending the day in the seaside town of Palidoro, just outside Rome, the group had pizza together and later headed back to Rome.
“The poor say the pizza is the biggest treat,” the Polish cardinal said. “Not only because it’s the ‘largest one in the world’ as they say, but because they know the pope is paying!”
He laughed as he made the comment.
“Those conversations at the table are really precious. Sharing the meal helps them to open up, really share their stories,” Krajewski told Crux.
Yet the early days of August weren’t all fun and beach games for the papal almoner.
He had been struggling to get 18 ventilators to Brazil, where the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 108,000 people.
The ventilators had been a gift to the country from Pope Francis, but the Polish cardinal was tasked with getting the devices there safely.
“I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to find a way to send those ventilators to Brazil,” Krajewski told Crux. “We were trying for weeks without success – ventilators are very hard to transport so far away – they can’t be put on top of each other because they will break so they demand a lot of space.”
The search for a carrier made the task almost impossible, but the Polish cardinal can be a stubborn man when it comes to helping others, with a network of other equally stubborn people to help him out.
“I called a priest in Poland who used to be our spiritual director at the seminary in Lodz – we call him Father Grandpa – to complain about how difficult a task it was, and he told me: aren’t you the one that told me about Father Dolindo and entrusting everything to Jesus?”
The anecdote recalls Italian priest Franciscan Father Dolindo Ruotolo, who died in 1970. Ruotolo is currently a Servant of God, one of the first steps on the road to sainthood. If you look at the back of the prayer card for the Naples-born priest, it includes a novena to “holy surrender” – the devotion for which is best known.
Krajewski told Crux that it wasn’t until he entrusted the endeavor to God – by saying, “Jesus, you take care of it” – that an opportunity for transporting the ventilators to Brazil presented itself.
In a press statement sent on Monday by the office of the Papal Almoner, Krajewski defined the gesture as a “sign of closeness of the Holy Father.”
Along with 18 ventilators, 6 echocardiograph machines were sent to help in the country’s emergency wards.
Once in Brazil, these devices will be delivered and donated to those hospitals selected by the Vatican embassy in the country, so that “this gesture of Christian solidarity and charity can really help the poorest and most needy people.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma